Historical Reprints Religion Jewish Magic and Superstition

Jewish Magic and Superstition

Jewish Magic and Superstition
Catalog # SKU1718
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 1.00 lbs
Author Name Joshua Trachtenberg
 
$24.95
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Description

Jewish Magic
and
Superstition


A Study in Folk Religion

by
Joshua Trachtenberg

I hope that the readers of this book will find in it some little contribution to our knowledge of the history of thought-not of Jewish thought alone, but of human thought. For superstition and magic are universal and uniform in their manifestations, and constitute an important chapter in the progress of man's ideas; those minor variations that appear here and there are but reflections of the infinite variety and ingenuity of the human mind.

TO UNDERSTAND a people-and through it, humankind-is to see its life whole. This has been a peculiarly difficult task where Jews are concerned, for the vision of the world has been obscured by darkly bias-tinted spectacles. If, on the one hand, Christological and anti-Semitic prejudices have revealed only an infamous horde of blasphemers and parasites, on the other, a historical perspective limited by Scripture has disclosed an exalted band of prophets, hounded and persecuted as prophets must be for their vision and temerity. Between these two extremes-which have alike doomed Jews to the unhappiest of careers-a normal people, with all the faults and virtues of humanity, has pursued its normal course through history, however abnormal were the conditions against which it struggled.

This is perhaps the greatest achievement of Jewry, that in the face of an environment as perennially hostile as any people has had to confront, it has still maintained its balance, it has remained a normal member of the human family-even to owning, along with its peculiar virtues and faults, the common aberrations of the human race.

The Jewish people did not cease to live and grow when the New Testament was written. The two thousand years since have seen a steady expansion and development of its inner life. New religious concepts were advanced, the old were elaborated, and always the effort has been to make these something more than concepts, to weave them into the pattern of daily life, so that the Jew might live his religion. This was the sadly misunderstood "legalism" of Judaism. But alongside this formal development there was a constant elaboration of what we may call "folk religion"-ideas and practices that never met with the whole-hearted approval of the religious leaders, but which enjoyed such wide popularity that they could not be altogether excluded from the field of religion.

Of this sort were the beliefs concerning demons and angels, and the many superstitious usages based on these beliefs, which by more or less devious routes actually became a part of Judaism, and on the periphery of the religious life, the practices of magic, which never broke completely with the tenets of the faith, yet stretched them almost to the breaking-point.

If we call these "folk religion" it is because they expressed the common attitude of the people, as against the official attitude of the Synagogue, to the universe.

Joshua Trachtenberg

EXCERPT

THE anomalous position of the Jew in the modern world is but a latter-day version of the fate that has dogged his footsteps ever since he wandered forth among strange and hostile peoples. In no time and place, however, was his status-and his plight-so manifestly unique as in medieval Europe.

The essence of that uniqueness lay in his ambiguous relationship to the Christian society in which he led his precarious existence, on the one hand influenced by all the objective forces which molded his environment, on the other, shut off from that environment by insurmountable walls of suspicion and animosity. His wilful persistence in his religious and cultural "difference" from the intolerant Christian civilization of the day, the dogmatic enmity fostered by the Church, his minority status coupled with an effective economic competition with his non-Jewish neighbors, all these combined to create an attitude of envy and hatred. But these alone do not tell the whole story; we must admit a further element into the psychological complex which determined the attitude of Christian toward Jew-an element which today has lost its force in the composition of anti-Semitism, but which in the Middle Ages loomed very large. For it contributed the emotion of fear, even of superstitious dread, in an age when superstition was the prevailing faith not alone of the masses, but of many of their leaders as well. Sorcery was a very real and terrifying phenomenon in those days, and many medieval Christians looked upon the Jew as the magician par excellence.

The allegiance to Satan, attributed to Jews with an insistence that almost drowned out its true implication, was not merely a form of invective or rhetoric. Satan was the ultimate source of magic, which operated only by his diabolic will and connivance. Christian writers make it quite clear that this is the connection to which they refer.1 Secular and religious authorities took action time and again against the Jews expressly on this count, and the Inquisition occasionally availed itself of the charge to get around the restrictions of ecclesiastical law which excluded the Jew from its legitimate hunting grounds.

The masses also were quick to seize the opportunity afforded by this accusation, and mass attacks upon the Jews frequently followed the levelling of the charge. To cite but one instance: the most violent mob assault upon Jews in England, which overwhelmed every major Jewish community and took a tragic toll of martyrs, had its inception at the coronation of Richard I in London on September 3, 1189. On that occasion a Jewish delegation bearing gifts and pledges of allegiance was driven from the palace, publicly accused of having come to cast their enchantments over the newly crowned king, and was set upon by the crowd; the outbreak spread rapidly through the city and the land, took more than half a year to spend itself and left in its wake a trail of horrible butcheries. Such manifestations, in greater or lesser degree, were the usual concomitant of a like accusation.

The striking feature of the Christian apprehension of Jewish sorcery is that it adhered not to certain specific Jews, who had aroused it by their actions, but rather to the entire people, en masse. Consequently every innocent Jewish act which by its strangeness laid itself open to suspicion was considered a diabolical device for working magic against Christians. The custom of throwing a clod of earth behind one after a funeral brought a charge of sorcery in Paris, in the early years of the thirteenth century, which might have had dire consequences if a certain Rabbi Moses b. Ye?iel had not succeeded in persuading the king of its utterly harmless character. The practice of washing the hands on returning from the cemetery aroused the same suspicions of sorcery and provoked some bloody scenes.

So onerous did these recurrent accusations become that the rabbis of the Middle Ages found it necessary-forced to this step, no doubt, by Jewish public opinion-to suspend some of these customs. In the case of the clod-throwing, though "many were obliged to disregard the usage for fear that the Gentiles would accuse them of sorcery," custom was proof against fear. But in other instances fear triumphed. The mourning rites of "binding the head" and "overturning the bed" lapsed during the Middle Ages for this reason. In Talmudic times fear of the same accusation had led Jewish authorities to excuse the head of the household from the rite of "searching out the leaven" on the eve of the Passover in places owned in common with a non-Jew; during the Middle Ages there was a strong but unsuccessful agitation to suspend this rite altogether, even indoors, "because we have Gentile serving-girls in our homes" who might spread the alarm. In Provence, however, the ritual cleansing of the public oven in preparation for Passover baking was neglected "because of the Gentiles' suspicion of sorcery." When a fire broke out in a Jewish house its owner dared expect little mercy from the mob, for he was a sorcerer seeking to destroy Christendom, and his punishment was commonly simultaneous with his crime. The rabbis of the time were therefore unusually tolerant about violations of the prohibition to put out fires on the Sabbath and on the Day of Atonement. At the slightest danger they set this prohibition aside, "for this is a matter of life and death, since they accuse us and persecute us." We read of a lamb, slaughtered in fulfillment of a ritual obligation, which was cut up and buried secretly in sections, "so that the matter may not become known and they say, 'it was done for magical ends.'" To such measures were Jews driven by fear of arousing the suspicions of their neighbors.

Jews were stoned as sorcerers. But it needs little knowledge of human nature to believe that the very vice became a virtue when Christians themselves had need of a little expert magic on the side. If Jews were magicians, their every act a charm, then their magic devices could aid as well as harm. R. Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, in the thirteenth century, tells that once when he was in Regensburg over a holiday, "a Gentile who had much power in the city fell dangerously ill, and ordered a Jew to let him have some of his wine, or he would surely die; and I gave this Jew permission to send him the wine (although it was a holiday) in order to prevent trouble, though there were some who disagreed and forbade this." Apparently Jewish wine possessed occult healing powers; perhaps this Gentile had in mind wine that had been blessed by Jews. It would be interesting to know how effective the cure was but R. Isaac carries his anecdote no farther.

The mezuzah (a Biblical inscription attached to the doorpost) was also an object of suspicion, and at the same time, of desire. That it was regarded as a magical device by Christians we know, for a fifteenth-century writer admonished his readers to affix a mezuzah to their doors even when they occupied a house owned by a non-Jew, despite the fact that the landlord might accuse them of sorcery. Indeed, the Jews in the Rhineland had to cover over their mezuzot, for, as a thirteenth-century writer complained, "the Christians, out of malice and to annoy us, stick knives into the mezuzah openings and cut up the parchment." Out of malice, no doubt-but the magical repute of the mezuzah must have lent special force to their vindictiveness.

Yet even Christians in high places were not averse to using these magical instruments themselves. Toward the end of the fourteenth century the Bishop of Salzburg asked a Jew to give him a mezuzah to attach to the gate of his castle, but the rabbinic authority to whom this Jew turned for advice refused to countenance so outrageous a prostitution of a distinctively religious symbol.

In the field of medicine in particular was the reputed Jewish magical skill called upon to perform miracles. According to the popular view, demons and magic were often responsible for disease, and medicine was therefore the legitimate province of the sorcerer. Jewish physicians, though by no means free from the general superstitious attitude, were among the foremost representatives of a scientific medicine in the Germanic lands. Their wide knowledge of languages, the availability of Arabic-Greek medical works in Hebrew translation, their propensity for travel and study abroad, their freedom from the Church-fostered superstition of miraculous cures, relics, and the like, these often conspired to make of them more effective practitioners than their non-Jewish competitors. Paradoxically, their scientific training, such as it was, made them superior magicians in the popular view, and every triumph of medical science enhanced the Jew's reputation for sorcery.

This accounts for the popularity of Jewish doctors in Northern Europe throughout this period, despite stringent Church prohibitions, constantly reiterated by popes and synods (Vienna 1267, Basel 1434, etc.), and the caveat of the clergy that these Jews would turn their magic against their patients. But who would risk his life in the hands of an inferior Christian physician for the sake of theological doctrine when a powerful Jewish doctor-magician could be called in? In 1657, when a Jewish doctor was given permission to practice in the city of Hall, in Swabia, the clergy epitomized the medieval clerical position in a public statement: "Es sei besser mit Christo gestorben, als per Juden-Dr. mit dem Teufel gesund worden"! But this pious preference was reserved for whole moments; when the issue was joined the ministrations of Satan were not rejected. For those who are interested there are lists of Jewish physicians practicing in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages. We know of most of them only because their names have been preserved in Christian documents, recording their services to Christian rulers and prelates, their receipt or loss of privileges, or the occasional tragic reward of their efforts. For if the patient risked his life when he called in a Jewish doctor, that doctor also risked his when he rolled up his sleeves and set to work. If his ministrations were successful he was a magician and might expect to be treated as such, with fear and respect, and active animosity; if he failed, he was a magician, and could expect to be called upon to pay promptly for his crime. The first Jewish physician we hear of in the West was one Zedekiah, court physician to Emperor Charles the Bald toward the end of the ninth century, magician, of course, as well as-or because?-physician. He marked the type to the end: accused of poisoning the Emperor in 877, he no doubt suffered the appropriate punishment.

CONTENTS

PREFACE
CHAPTER 1 THE LEGEND OF JEWISH SORCERY

CHAPTER 2 THE TRUTH BEHIND THE LEGEND
JEWISH MAGIC
THE MAGICIAN
FORBIDDEN AND PERMITTED
"IT IS BEST TO BE HEEDFUL"

CHAPTER 3 THE POWERS OF EVIL
THE MIDDLE WORLD
TERMINOLOGY
THE GENESIS OF DEMONS
ATTRIBUTES AND FUNCTIONS
"JEWISH" DEMONS

CHAPTER 4 MAN AND THE DEMONS
ATTACK
CRISES
SPIRIT POSSESSION
INCUBUS AND SUCCUBUS
THE EVIL EYE
WORDS AND CURSES

CHAPTER 5 THE SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

CHAPTER 6 THE POWERS OF GOOD
DEPUTY ANGELS
ATTRIBUTES AND FUNCTIONS

CHAPTER 7 "IN THE NAME OF . . ."
THE POTENCY OF THE NAME
ABRACADABRA
THE GOLEM
THE EVOLUTION OF NAME-MAGIC
THE NAMES OF GOD
ANGEL NAMES
BORROWED NAMES

CHAPTER 8 THE BIBLE IN MAGIC
THE WORD OF GOD
THE USE OF THE WORD

CHAPTER 9 THE MAGICAL PROCEDURE
INCANTATIONS
NUMBERS
THE MAGIC ACT
SYMPATHETIC MAGIC

CHAPTER 10 AMULETS
MATERIAL OBJECTS
GEMS
WRITTEN AMULETS
PREPARATION OF AMULETS
"TEFILLIN" AND "MEZUZOT"

CHAPTER 11 THE WAR WITH THE SPIRITS
RELIGIOUS DEFENSES
MAGICAL DEFENSES
STRATAGEM
BIRTH, MARRIAGE AND DEATH
Birth
Circumcision
Marriage
Death

CHAPTER 12 NATURE AND MAN
THE WONDERS OF NATURE
FOLK BIOLOGY-PROCREATION
FORGETTING AND REMEMBERING

CHAPTER 13 MEDICINE
MAGIC AND THE DOCTOR
THE CAUSES OF DISEASE
TREATMENT
SOME SOVEREIGN REMEDIES
HERBS


CHAPTER 14 DIVINATION
DETERMINISM VS. FREE WILL
OMENS
THE PROGNOSTIC ARTS
THE DIVINING PRINCES
NECROMANCY
BURIED TREASURE
TRIAL BY ORDEAL

CHAPTER 15 DREAMS
THE DREAM IN HUMAN AFFAIRS
WHERE DREAMS COME FROM
"DREAMS FOLLOW THEIR INTERPRETATION"
THE TECHNIQUE OF INTERPRETATION
DREAM DIVINATION
NEUTRALIZING OMINOUS DREAMS

CHAPTER 16 ASTROLOGY

APPENDIX I THE FORMATION OF MAGICAL NAMES

APPENDIX II MS. SEFER GEMATRIAOT

ABBREVIATIONS AND HEBREW TITLES
BIBLIOGRAPHY


Softcover, 8¼" x 10¾", 310+ pages
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